Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Finding a job, and a career, in 1923

Through Charley's Door, Emily Kimbrough

In addition to her travel books, Emily Kimbrough wrote several volumes of memoirs.  I had already read and enjoyed her account of a small-town childhood, How Dear to My Heart.  Discovering that one was about getting a job in advertising at Chicago's iconic Marshall Field's department store in 1923, following her graduation from college, I added it straight to my reading list.  When my copy arrived, I found that it picks up just after she and Cornelia Otis Skinner returned from Europe, and their adventures chronicled in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  That moved it to the top of my reading stack.  Seeing Cornelia's name on the first page only made me more anxious to read it.
Late in the winter of 1923, I acknowledged to her, and - what was harder - to myself, that my chum, Cornelia Otis Skinner, was an actress. . . I faced the future with a cold, clear acceptance that Cornelia and I had come to a parting of careers, and that there was one other sizable difference between us.  I had no career at all.
Cornelia disappears from the story after page 2, but any disappointment I felt passed quickly.  Emily noted that "Cornelia was the only one of my friends who had stepped out on her own."  Her other friends were living happily at home "or getting ready to leave by the conventional exit, marriage."
One or two of them had experienced an urge to stand on her own by holding down a job, but this urge had been quickly stamped out by family disapproval. This inclination on the part of daughters was a favorite topic of conversation among parents in 1923. When the subject was broached at any social gathering in our house, I had invariably an impulse to clap my hand over my mother's mouth or in some way distract her from voicing the sentiments I knew were hers and hers alone. . . "Ignorant, benighted, sentimental" comprised a few of the epithets she applied to her friends, and their opinions. . . "Every girl," this was one of her favorite outbursts and frequently repeated, "should have the capacity to earn her own living. To be economically independent is the only way I know for a woman to become mentally independent" . . . In private she expanded her theme with the information that though I would be fed, housed and clothed, whatever I wanted or needed above the bare necessities - and very bare, she invariably stressed - would have to come of my own providing, particularly because of the principle of the thing, and partly because the family could not afford any more.
Through a family friend, Emily managed to get an interview in the advertising department at Marshall Field's. (Fellow fans of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay may be as delighted as I was to read that she wore her "Paris" dress, the one she made of heavy velour, to the interview; and for reasons best known to herself, she took along the Brussels griffon dog that she also acquired in Paris, smuggling both dress and dog past her mother.)  Though she knew nothing about advertising, she was hired to work on the store's in-house magazine, Fashions of the Hour.  The editor was another independent young woman, Achsah Gardner, who became a mentor and friend.  Emily and her mother were long-time customers of the store, part of the "carriage trade" that came daily through "Charley's door," welcomed by the doorman who had presided there since 1890.  But as an employee, she had to learn the store in a whole new way, not just the layout and the merchandise but also the hierarchy of staff.  Meanwhile, she was also learning how to write, edit and produce the magazine, including long nights at the printing works.  She made mistakes, sometimes big ones, but she learned quickly enough to be named the editor a couple of years later.  Her account ends with an even bigger promotion, when she was offered the position of fashion editor at the Ladies' Home Journal, then one of America's premier women's magazines.

There was so much to enjoy in this book.  It was fascinating to see young women like her choosing careers, often against family and social opposition.  (It was a choice for these middle-class young women.)  According to Emily's account, Marshall Field's was one of the first companies to hire them, and it was considered a respectable place for them to work.  This element, and the department store itself, reminded me of Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Home-Maker.  The craziness of the advertising department also brought to mind Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, though here the work was done in-house rather than through an outside firm. But the battles between the departments and the advertising staff felt very familiar.

There are more serious elements to the story as well.  Emily's job eventually cost her some friendships.  Working long hours, including Saturdays, she couldn't attend the dances and house-parties that regularly drew her group together.  And when she did join them, she wanted to share her fascination with her work and with the world of the store, but her friends weren't interested.  She in turn came to find them a little frivolous.  Fortunately she made friends at the store, including Achsah (I cannot figure out how that name is pronounced).  In fact, the book is dedicated "To Achsah Gardner Kimbrough With Love."  I thought, how nice, she married one of Emily's cousins and became family as well as friend.  Achsah was there when Emily's beloved mother died suddenly.  I already knew from her other books how devastating that loss was to her daughter.  I was stunned to read just a few pages later that her father then married Achsah.  Without saying a word against it, Emily made it clear that was a major factor in accepting the offer from the Ladies' Home Journal, which meant moving from Chicago to Philadelphia.  She went on to become its editor, and I hope she wrote about that work in a later book.

Monday, October 27, 2014

On the road to Delphi

My Brother Michael, Mary Stewart

When I finished Water, Water Everywhere, I wasn't ready to leave Greece.  Then I remembered that Mary Stewart set several of her books amongst the Greek Islands, and I chose this one for its setting in Delphi.  What a lucky choice!  Though I think The Ivy Tree will always be my favorite of her mysteries, this one runs it a very close second.  And since I was a little disappointed in the last two of her books that I read, I was glad to be reminded of just how very good her books can be.

The story opens in Athens, where Camilla Haven is sitting in a café, finishing a letter to a friend back home.  She is running short on funds, and she is afraid that she won't have enough to really see Delphi. "Nothing ever happens to me," she writes. "If only I could afford a car.  Do you suppose that if I prayed to all the gods at once -?"  Perhaps no one ever told her, "Be careful what you wish for."  She has just finished writing the last word when a man comes up to her table, saying, "It's about the car for Delphi."  He had been told to bring the car to the café, for Monsieur Simon in Delphi, on a matter of life and death.  He offers Camilla the key, and though she protests that she did not order the car, and knows nothing of Monsieur Simon, over her better judgement she accepts it and sets off on the road to Delphi.

Without much experience driving, Camilla manages to navigate her way out of Athens and through the villages that line the route.  It is in one of those villages that she comes to grief, facing a truck on a narrow street, where she must back up to let him by.  As a crowd gathers, she completely loses her confidence, telling them that she can't risk damaging Monsieur Simon's car on the steep, twisting road.  They point out to her a man walking down into the village.  He turns out to be a fellow Briton, who not only moves the car for her but accepts her offer of a ride to Delphi, if he will drive.  She is not completely surprised to learn that his name is Simon, but he is, to learn that she is bringing the car to him.  He disclaims all knowledge of it, insisting that he is not the Simon in question, but he offers to help her deliver the car in Delphi.  Camilla soon learns that he is in Greece seeking information on his brother Michael, a Liaison Officer with the Greek Resistance, killed during the war.  Simon quickly draws Camilla into his quest, which may in turn be connected to the mystery of who hired a car in his name.

There is so much I loved about this book.  Mary Stewart excelled at creating vivid settings for her stories, and here she brings Delphi and the small villages around it to life.  It is a little different from the Greece that Emily Kimbrough traveled through, more crowded and chaotic.  Naturally, in a mystery, it is also a more dangerous place.  But Camilla and Simon, like the real-life Kimbrough and her friends, are students of the classics, equally caught up in the history and legends they see coming to life in the ancient sites.  Stewart also weaves more recent history into her story, and I learned something of Greece in the Second World War and the civil war that followed it.  I found the characters very engaging as well.  Camilla I liked from the start.  She is a quiet heroine, a little on the passive side and lacking confidence in herself, but stronger than she realizes.  At one point I realized that she was never going to transform into Amelia Peabody Emerson, and that was OK.  Simon on the other hand is a perfect hero, kind, patient, bookish, interested in people, and handsome to boot.  At first sight, Camilla compares him to a Jane Austen character, which removed any doubts I might have had about him.  With all due respect to Simon at Stuck in a Book, I usually associate that name in books with villains, such as Simon St Pol in Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo books, or Simon Doyle in Death on the Nile, so it's nice to find an exception. And this may be a (mild) spoiler, but I also love books about finding buried treasure!

N.B. This is the third book I have read for the Peril the First in the R.I.P. IX Challenge.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A family's sanctuary threatened

Closed at Dusk, Monica Dickens

What a wonderfully creepy book, just perfect for the week before Halloween and the RIP Challenge.  For me, the unease set in on the first page, when a little boy named Rob runs through an empty house, calling for Keith.  I didn't know who he was, or Keith either, or why the house was empty - but I was immediately hooked.  And I didn't want Rob to go down the basement stairs, in search of Keith.  Nothing good ever happens in old basements.

We gradually find out that the house belongs to Rob's grandfather William Taylor, and that it is an eccentric place called The Sanctuary, the family's home for more than two centuries.  The residents in the 1870s turned it into a sanctuary for animals, hence the name.  Now famous for its gardens, scattered with whimsical animal figures, it draws garden enthusiasts and casual visitors from April to October.  As we learn about the house, we are also introduced to William's family, including his wife Dorothy and daughter Tessa, Rob's mother (who has recently separated from her husband).  The absent Keith is a nephew, living at The Sanctuary while recovering from a debilitating illness, which some in the family find hard to take seriously.  Other members of the family come to stay, and I found myself making a family tree to keep them all straight, as well as the earlier generations whose stories we hear.  And we meet some of the people who live and work at The Sanctuary, such as Mary Trout, known to three generations of the family as "Troutie," now almost 90 years old, who loves to talk about the days when she was nurse and cook (she reminded me of the retired Nannies in Angela Thirkell's books, always welcoming their old charges back again).  Troutie's granddaughter Ruth runs the tea-room at The Sanctuary, converted from part of the old stables.  Her assistant Doreen claims she can hear the terrible sounds of two horses, caught there in a fire fifty years ago.  It's one of the eerie legends of the place; there are others.  Ruth thinks it's nonsense, and she is glad when an enthusiastic new worker named Jo replaces Doreen.

I don't want to give away too much about the plot, which a blurb from the Sunday Express describes as "a story of love, hate, and murder, tinged with the supernatural."  It isn't so much a classic "who-done-it" mystery as a story of slowly-building suspense.  The narrative shifts between the different characters as it unfolds, so we know why particular things are happening, while others are still in the dark.  It certainly kept me turning the pages, wanting to find out what happened next, and trying to work out how the story would end.  I thought Dickens brought it to a very neat conclusion, though I would have liked to have seen justice done, someone held to account.  (The image on the front of my Penguin paperback seemed to be a spoiler but turned out to be quite misleading.)

Published in 1991, this was one of Monica Dickens' last books.  It felt different from the others I have read, from the 1940s and 1950s, which often draw from her own life.  Having read her autobiography, I keep seeing the connections in her fiction.  Not with this book, however!  Nor do I remember supernatural elements in her other stories.  Here, they are treated lightly, almost in passing.   It isn't always clear what really happened, particularly when people start embroidering them, to entertain or impress, or to scare. But there were genuinely eerie moments, when I was glad for bright lights around me.  You wouldn't have gotten me down those cellar stairs, not after what happened to Maryann Button.

N.B. This is the second book I have read for the Peril the First in the R.I.P. IX Challenge.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A pilgrimage to Greece

Water, Water Everywhere, Emily Kimbrough

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I fall in love with a book I'm reading, I gobble it up, turning the pages as fast as I can, resenting interruptions like work.  But with other literary love affairs, I read more slowly, savoring, unwilling to rush, not wanting the book to end.  This was one of those books.  As I was coming to the last chapters yesterday, I was reading only a page or two at a time.

It is an account of a tour of Greece that Emily Kimbrough took with three friends in 1955.  When I came across a battered paperback copy at Half Price Books last month, I hesitated a moment about buying it, actually.  I knew that she had written a series of travel books, but I wasn't impressed with the first I read, Forty Plus and Fancy Free (published in 1954).  The cover proclaims it "The gay excursion of youthful grandmothers romping through Paris and Italy and 'doing' the Coronation."  The trip culminated in London, where Kimbrough covered the Coronation by radio broadcast for CBS, and I did enjoy that part of the book. In general though I thought she tried too hard to be funny, maybe hoping to re-create the magic of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  She did the same thing at the start of her book We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood, stretching out the minor mishaps of a train journey (it improved once they arrived in Hollywood).

This book is very different, however, and infinitely better.  It is dedicated to her mother, Charlotte Wiles Kimbrough.
If a love that was really passionate, and a devotion that was certainly lifelong, together with a not inconsiderable knowledge of the subject are qualifications, then Mother was a scholar of Greek.  She taught me the Greek alphabet before I learned English letters  . . .  Her bedtime stories to me were of "Jason," "Hercules," and other heroes.  By the time I got around to reading for myself "The Sleeping Beauty," I classified Prince Charming as one of the most sickening sissies I had ever encountered  . . .  [H]er favorite make-believe had always begun, "One day, when you and I are in Greece. . ."  In 1955, Mother had been gone for thirty-one years, without ever having been to Greece  . . .   Nevertheless, to see Greece was an obligation I felt had been laid upon me.
This really sets the stage for the trip she would take: a literary and historical pilgrimage.  At times she was brought to tears by the reality of places she had read about and studied, and with memories of her mother.  But this wasn't a deadly serious trip.  There was always time for shopping, particularly for shoes, and delicious meals.  One of her companions carried an assortment of bottles nestled among her shoes, and the four met together each afternoon for the "shoe-bag hour" of cocktails.  Sometimes there were disagreements, and funny things happened along the way, which Kimbrough treated lightly.  Her real focus was always the sights they were seeing and the people they were meeting. 

Based in Athens, where they stayed a month, they traveled around by car and ship, seeing the big tourist sites but also smaller out-of-way places they had learned about.  I in turn learned a lot about Greece from this book, and it made me want to read more.  (I've already checked out one book she recommended, The Bull of Minos, about excavations in Mycenae.)  If I am ever lucky enough to travel to Greece, I think I'll take this book with me, even if it's 60 years out of date.  Kimbrough was writing a real travel guide, because at the time the Greek tourism industry was still developing.  For readers who might be inspired to follow her, she included information about hotels and restaurants and guides, as well as helpful hints about comfortable clothing.  The four women apparently traveled in dresses with those big 1950s skirts (not to mention gloves and hats), but at least three of them brought "topsiders" for comfort in tramping around.

Kimbrough's three friends were as well-read as she was, and as interested in Greek history and culture.  Even better, they all had the same philosophy of travel.  "We are not by our respective natures group minded  . . .  We like to explore for ourselves."  They didn't try to see everything, they weren't tied down to strict schedules, and they liked to wander.  I would sign on for a tour with them in a heartbeat.

After their time in Greece, they traveled north through Yugoslavia and from there to Italy.  Then Kimbrough with one of the friends went on to England.  There they stayed in London at the Indian Embassy with the High Commissioner, "Mme. Pandit."  Maybe everyone reading this book in 1956 knew who that was.  It was only later, googling something, that I discovered her to be Vijaya Lakshmi Nehru Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru.  I knew that Emily Kimbrough had been a noted hostess in Philadelphia and New York, as well as the long-time editor of Good Housekeeping, but I hadn't realized the kind of connections she had (Mme. Pandit had previously been her guest in New York).

In England, she and her friend Sophy set off on further pilgrimages, including trips to Winchester and Canterbury, as well as Jane Austen's house at Chawton.  On the spur of the moment, she decided to hire a houseboat for a trip up the Thames.  She thought the hire included someone to operate the boat, but when she learned otherwise, she volunteered Sophy for the job.  I immediately thought of Three Men in a Boat, which Kimbrough doesn't mention.  She does however cite Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors on the last page, which put the seal on my love for this book.

All week long, as I was reading, I had the urge to buttonhole people and share that love.  The only thing that stopped me was knowing the looks of incomprehension and pity that I would get in return. I nearly broke my rule about not reviewing books I haven't finished, just to tell someone about it.  Somewhere around the third chapter, I checked on Emily Kimbrough's other travel books.  I discovered she wrote about boat trips with friends through the canals of France and Ireland, as well as return voyages in England and Greece.  She also wrote a memoir about working in advertising at Marshall Field's, straight out of college.  I will not attempt to conceal from you that there is a new Emily Kimbrough section of the TBR stacks, which will be increasing (the fruits of an early-morning binge on the ABE site).  I am trusting that they will fall more in line with this book than with Forty Plus, but either way I expect to be amused and entertained, and probably to learn something.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Clipped wings and false feathers

The Wild Swan, Margaret Kennedy

When it came time for Jane's Margaret Kennedy Reading Week, I was spoiled for choice, since I had stockpiled some of her books in anticipation. While I'm glad to learn that Virago is reprinting a selection of her novels, it is also fun to find older copies still available (and reasonably priced).  I chose this one because I remembered it had something to do with a film production in a small town. As I discovered, that's true, but it's rather like saying War and Peace has something to do with a battle.

The film in production is a Victorian melodrama, about the life and loves of Dorothea Harding.
[In] her day [she] had been an immensely popular novelist.  She wrote very moral romances with historical or classical settings, but her vogue was long since over and all her books were out of print.  Her literary reputation, such as it was, now rested upon some poetry, discovered and published after her death, which had at one time created a considerable stir and which still commanded a few adherents.
I immediately pictured Charlotte M. Yonge, but with a whiff of scandal.

Dorothea Harding lived all her life near the coastal town of Beremouth.  There a production team from the Blech Bernstein British film company has gathered. Adelaide Lassiter, who wrote a successful play called The Wild Swan, wants to soak up local atmosphere as she adapts her play for the film.  The critic Alec Mundy has been brought in to ensure the accuracy of Miss Lassiter's screenplay.  He is considered an authority on Dorothea Harding, since he edited and published her poetry.  His work demolished her image as "this spinster lady, so very prim and proper, living in the dear Vicar's pocket and writing prissy books for kids."  Instead, he argued, the poetry proves she was a woman of deep passion.  Based on references to "G." in the poems, he identified her brother-in-law Grant Forrester as her lover.  The team also includes Roy Collins, a rising young man at B.B.B., brash and cynical, who will eventually turn Miss Lassiter's screenplay into a workable script.  Meanwhile, he is there to help the work along.

One of his tasks is to arrange a visit to Dorothea's home at Bramstock, where a later generation of the family still lives.  Along the way, Roy sees swans flying overhead, and in the beat of their wings he hears the word "Never," just as Dorothea described them in one of her poems.
The fact that she must have been here took him so much by surprise that he paused and stood still. Hitherto he had always seen her as Kitty Fletcher [the actress who will play her], capering in a crinoline.  But now he perceived her as a real person, and wondered, for the first time, what kind of person that was.
Roy's curiosity about the real Dorothy becomes almost an obsession.  He feels for her "a kind of wondering sympathy," and later he channels a "helpless, hopeless despair."  In the second section of the book, we the readers are given many of the answers Roy is seeking, as the story moves back in time.  We meet Dorothea at age twenty, just as her older sister Mary is preparing to marry Grant Forrester.  It is immediately clear how wrong both Adelaide Lassiter and Alec Mundy are about her.  I suspected from the start that Miss Lassiter was completely off base, once I read that "She always referred to Dorothea as Doda, insisting, upon no evidence at all, that this had been her family nickname."  (It was Thea.)

But if the 20th-century characters misjudge Thea, so too do those around her in the 1850s and 1860s.  Here I think is a common thread in Margaret Kennedy's stories, at least those I have read: how we can misunderstand what is happening to us at the time, blinded by our own prejudices and interests.  But the past can equally be misrepresented and misinterpreted, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately.  Memories are fallible, documents are lost.  The poems that Alec Mundy discovered profoundly changed how people saw Dorothea Harding, but his interpretation created a false image of her.  At the same time, there is a packet of Thea's letters and manuscripts floating around, which could upend everything and wreck the film project (I do love books that turn on archival documents).  The British title of the book, The Heroes of Clone, alludes to the manuscripts, lost for a century.

This aspect of the story reminded me of A.S. Byatt's Possession, another story of Victorian poets revealed.  But it is only one aspect of Kennedy's complex story.  There is Dorothea herself, who is told far too many times that women cannot write poetry.  She does not accept that verdict, yet she gives up poetry for her own reasons (and takes up prose for someone else's).  Through Roy and his co-workers at B.B.B., Kennedy explores the work of a film studio, which she also knew from her own experience as a screenwriter.  Based on this book, I'd say she didn't have a high opinion of the films of late 1950s, when this book was published.  Yet Roy has written a short feature, an avant-garde work that shows real promise.  This delights his aunt May Turner, a retired school teacher living near Beremouth (a lovely character).  It confounds Cecilia Harding, the great-great-grandniece of Dorothea Harding.  Her family needs the £500 they have been offered for the use of their house in the film, but they resent and dislike the project and the team.  Cecilia, planning to go up to Oxford on the proceeds, initially snubs Roy, in part because he looks like "the plumber's mate" and also because he openly admits his lack of education.  She believes that only "people with a cultivated background" are able to appreciate literature or its creators.  Yet they unexpectedly find some common ground in Roy's quest.

I enjoyed this book very much, both Dorothea's story and the 20th century adaptations of it.  Dorothea and Roy are in their different ways very sympathetic characters, struggling to make their voices heard, to realize their visions.  Both in their own way are held back by a system that discounts their talents, though Roy will have opportunities Dorothy never did, as a man in the 20th century.  I am glad that Jane's reading week led me to this.  Now I'm off to read her review, and to consider which of Margaret Kennedy's books I will be reading next.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Less enchanted with Merlin's story

The Last Enchantment, Mary Stewart

I am reading for Jane's Margaret Kennedy reading week, but this is a carry-over from Anbolyn's Mary Stewart reading week.  As much as I love the first book in her Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave, which I have read and re-read over the past 30 years, I have no idea why I never got around to reading this one until now.  I do have a vague memory of starting it at one point.  Re-reading The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills last year inspired me to add a copy to the Mary Stewart section of the TBR stacks, and this year's reading week nudged me into picking it up.

There will be spoilers below.

I didn't grow up with the Arthurian legends.  I may have seen the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone - I know I read the book at one point.  So what I knew of Arthur was mainly about the finding of the sword, and some vague ideas about Guinevere, The Knights of the Round Table and Camelot, and the search for the Grail (some of which I may or may not have picked up from Monty Python. Ni).  From the end of The Hollow Hills, I knew that Arthur unknowingly slept with his half-sister Morgause, who would bear his son Mordred.  And I knew that Merlin had for many years foreseen his own end, alone in his hills.  But otherwise I came to this book, which begins just after Arthur claims the sword and the throne of the High King, pretty much as a blank slate.

The cover of my Fawcett paperback has a line, "The Magnificent Arthurian Legend."  This book, though, seems to be more about Merlin than Arthur, which isn't a complaint.  It covers the early years of Arthur's reign.  He spends most of it off fighting rebellious nobles and the Saxons who constantly push against the borders in the east and south.  Meanwhile Merlin travels to the north of Britain, in search of the King's infant son, and then turns to building, first Caerleon in Wales and then Camelot in the West Country.  He has lost most of his power, spent in preparing the sword for Arthur, so much of what he does only looks magical, through his gifts for engineering and medicine - and also because people who know him as the King's Enchanter take his power for granted. Conscious of his lost power and his advancing years [at 40], Merlin hopes to find an apprentice, someone he can train to take his place at Arthur's side.

I have conflicting feelings about this book. Merlin himself is an old friend, and I enjoyed watching Arthur grow into his kingship.  He reminded me a little of Dorothy Dunnett's Thorfinn, another young man fighting to bind and hold his kingdom. But while Merlin says at one point, "It was never my intention to give details of the years of battle," there are still a lot of battles.  I found it hard to keep the nobles and the battlefields straight (especially because Stewart uses ancient names, which I had trouble placing despite the handy map).

My bigger problem was with the female characters in the book.  I had never heard the legend that Arthur married two women, both called Guinevere.  Here the first, a beautiful young innocent, dies shortly after their marriage of a miscarriage.  The second is the more familiar Queen I know from the legends.  At one point she is kidnapped by a minor king named Melwas, who has seduction if not rape in mind; and she falls in love with Arthur's best friend Bedwyr (I had an idea it was Lancelot).  Arthur is pretty calm about both these events, at least her role in them (Melwas is not so lucky).  In discussing the Melwas episode, he says to Merlin,
"You have told me many times that you know nothing of women. Does it never occur to you that they lead lives of dependence so complete as to breed uncertainty and fear? That their lives are like those of slaves, or of animals that are used by creatures stronger than themselves, and sometimes cruel?  Why, even royal ladies are bought and sold, and are bred to lead their lives far from their homes and their people, as the property of men unknown to them."
For a 5th-century male, that almost sounds enlightened.  But in historical fiction, women can elide or escape those limitations, and I prefer stories where they do - as real women have done throughout history.  Dorothy Dunnett wrote women characters like that, as did Elizabeth Peters (on a less serious level), to name just two (of my favorites).  Merlin's mother Niniane did so in the first book, standing up to her father to protect her bastard son, and refusing to marry just to please him.  Here in this book there are six main women characters.  Two die early on: Arthur's mother Ygraine, who is terminally ill when the book opens, and whose life was completely wrapped up in her husband Uther; and the first Guenever, whose role is basically a walk-on ingénue who dies young and beautiful.  The second Guinevere, unable to bear children, fails in her queenly duty to provide an heir and is reduced to an ornament at court, trapped in a loveless marriage.  There are two women who try to seize power, Arthur's sister Morgan and half-sister Morgause.  They are witches, adepts of the dark powers, though their magic is also dismissed as weak and womanly, compared to the god-power that Merlin channels.  Both are presented as evil, especially Morgause, who poisons Merlin at one point.  They fail in their attempts to control or overthrow Arthur, punished with exile to in a distant monastery, their children taken from them.

And then there is Nimuë, who comes to Merlin as a disciple, to be taught and shaped.  In the first book of the series, Merlin learns that the power he has demands celibacy, which is why (as Arthur points out) he knows so little of women.  But everything changes with Nimuë, whom he can love both emotionally and physically.  I'm all for a good love story, but this one felt wrong from the start, and not just because of the twenty-year difference in their ages.  If I understood the story correctly, she uses his love to blind him to the fact that she is stealing what remains of his power from him, weakened as he still is from the poison.  Eventually he falls into some kind of coma and is declared dead, buried away in his crystal cave.  Meanwhile, Nimuë takes his place at Arthur's side, and marries someone else.  Apparently women don't have to give up sex for power?  And when Merlin is finally rescued, he and Arthur seem to accept her betrayal, which makes no sense to me.  Maybe it is explained in the other two books in the series.  Despite my lukewarm feelings about this book, I do plan to read the next, The Wicked Day.

I wish someone would explain the cover of this book to me. It shows Arthur on a white horse, which is standing on the banks of a roaring river.  In the background, a giant gold harp floats against a cloud-filled sky. I can't think of anything in the book to which this could refer.  Maybe there is something later in the saga?  I know at some point a hand comes out of a lake, but I thought it held or took the sword Excalibur, not a harp.  Maybe I need to read The Idylls of the King or Le Morte d'Arthur.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The power of a pink sari

Pink Sari Revolution, Amana Fontanella-Khan

The subtitle of this book is "A tale of women and power in India."  It is an account of a grass-roots women's movement, called the "Pink Gang" for the distinctive saris they wear, and their work on behalf of one woman's cause, as well as a portrait of its founder Sampat Dal.  Set in the vast northern state of Uttar Pradesh, sometimes called "the Wild West of India," it is a window into life in the small farming communities where most of the population lives - almost 200 million people.

Many of these rural areas are, Amana Fontanella-Khan writes, places "where injustice against women, the lower castes, and the poor was an accepted part of life." Corruption among the police and judiciary, and in the state legislature, is wide-spread and well-known.  As a child growing up in the 1970s, Sampat Dal witnessed acts of violence and discrimination, and she took action herself against them when authorities wouldn't.  Married at age 12, to a man ten years older, she refused to accept the traditional role of a daughter-in-law, many of whom become virtual slaves to their mothers-in-law, saddled with all of the household work.  She convinced her husband to move out of his parents' house, a revolutionary act that gave her a measure of independence, even as the birth of five children over the next few years kept her tied to the home.  Having taught herself to sew, she was able to set up a small business for herself, giving her a financial independence all too rare.  She also joined a local NGO that ran schools and advocated for women, which taught her leadership skills and the power of women working together.  She had already rallied the women of her village against an abusive husband, attacking him one evening in the fields and telling him, "From now on, don't beat your wife."

In 2003, Sampat Dal started an NGO of her own, The Tribal Women Upliftment and Empowerment of Women Organization.  Under a government program, she and a co-worker, a man named Jai Prakah Shivare, started small self-help groups for women in the rural villages.  They gave talks on topics like personal finance and building a business, but also stressing the need for education, particularly for girls, as well as equality and justice for women and the lower castes.  She decided that the women in the groups needed a uniform, and she chose pink saris.  She organized her village groups into districts, under local commanders.  These commanders recruit new members, and they also bring cases to Sampat Dal's attention.  She may then call on the commanders to rally the women to action.  The Pink Gang has marched to police stations, government offices, and hospitals, armed only with the traditional bamboo staffs called laathis (often painted pink).  They have helped victims of rape, domestic violence, and unjust imprisonment, among other crimes.  Sampat Dal and her troops are part of a tradition in India called gherao,
whereby the public, driven by a sense that they have no traditional recourse to justice, and no power on their side except their sheer numbers and anger, surround an offending government establishment - an electricity department, a police station, a university, or in the case of labor disputes, an office or factory - to demand justice.  Gheraos sometimes lead to mob violence, a common occurence in the nation.
In this book, the author focuses on one particular gherao, on behalf of a young woman named Sheelu.  Much like Sampat Dal, she resented the restrictions placed on young women, particularly after her mother's death, when her father took her out of school to care for their house and her younger brothers.  Eventually she left home to live with a young man in a distant village.  Her father sought help in getting her back from his local state representative.  There are differing accounts of what happened after that, but Sheelu ended up in the legislator's house as a servant.  After he sexually assaulted her, she ran away.  The legislator accused her of stealing money and a rifle, and she was arrested and held for trial.  The police took no action when she accused her employer of rape, nor when her family said they had been threatened by armed men.  Sampat Dal did, however, and the intervention of the Pink Gang drew national attention to the case.

In the end, the author concludes, "There is no doubt that a strong Pink Gang is needed more than ever."  She continues,
[Life] in India is steadily worsening for women, who suffer the most when the police and judiciary systems are corrupted. Rape is now the fastest-growing crime in the country.  In the past four decades, the number of reported rapes has shot up by 792 percent. Conviction rates, however, are dropping.  A similar story is found in domestic violence, which has climbed by 30 percent in the same time period. Across the board, crimes against women have been increasing.

I found this book both troubling and inspiring, in about equal measure. I belong to a Houston chapter of Dining for Women, an international organization that provides grants to groups like Sampat Dal's NGO.  Each month we learn about women and girls denied basic human rights, including access to education, and the groups that are working to empower and support them.  The stories we hear often begin with one person stepping forward, like Sampat Dal, to bear witness and to call for change.  As she says, "In this world, at least one person has to fight. All over the world, someone comes forward who has courage."  This courage is changing individual lives, and the world around us.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A memoir of family, food and immigration

Stealing Buddha's Dinner, Bich Minh Nguyen

I requested this memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen from the library after reading her novel Short Girls.  Like her two main protagonists, Ms. Nguyen grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a large population of Vietnamese immigrants settled in the mid-1970s.  Unlike the Luong sisters, who were born in the United States, she came as an infant, with her family fleeing Saigon just ahead of the North Vietnamese army.  I expected this book would chronicle her introduction to the United States - and the Midwest in particular - focusing on her experiences growing up in a new country, a foreign language and culture.  From the title, I figured that food would play a major role in her story, which the blurb from the library's website confirmed:
A vivid, funny, and viscerally powerful memoir about childhood, assimilation, food, and growing up in the 1980s. As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bich Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity. In the pre-PC era Midwest, where the devoutly Christian blond-haired, blue-eyed Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme, Nguyen’s barely conscious desire to belong transmutes into a passion for American food. More exotic seeming than her Buddhist grandmother’s traditional specialties  — spring rolls, delicate pancakes stuffed with meats, fried shrimp cakes  — the campy, preservative-filled “delicacies” of mainstream America capture her imagination. And in this remarkable book, the glossy branded allure of such American foods as Pringles, Kit Kats, and Toll House cookies become an ingenious metaphor for her struggle to fit in, to become a “real” American.

All of that is true. Each of the chapter headings is food-related, starting with "Pringles" and ending with "Cha Gio." (I still remember my first taste of those small fried spring rolls, with the hostess at the restaurant showing us how to wrap them in lettuce leaves with cilantro and dunk them in nuoc cham sauce; my addiction was instantaneous.)   Food is a major theme in Ms. Nguyen's story, but it is a much more complex story than the blurb suggests.  I found myself reading this straight through, marveling at the resiliency of the author and her family.  I couldn't help wondering how her family felt about this very candid and revealing memoir.

Ms. Nguyen was only eight months old when her father forced their way onto a ship of refugees, with her grandmother Noi and her older sister Anh.  There was no mention of the girls' mother, whose story is revealed later in the book.  Two of her father's brothers and a family friend joined their group, which moved from a camp in Guam to one in Arkansas, before a sponsor brought them to Grand Rapids.  There, two years later, her father met and married a Mexican American woman, Rosa, who had a daughter of her own.  The new family had hardly moved into a new home (with the uncles living in the basement), when a baby brother arrived.  For many immigrants, their family and the immigrant community are sources of strength and comfort as they navigate a foreign land.  But here the family's new home was away from the Vietnamese community.  Ms. Nguyen and her sister were sometimes the only Asian children in their classes, subject to teasing and often feeling very isolated.  It certainly didn't help that her first name can so easily be mispronounced as "Bitch."  And there was tension at home as well, with a resentful stepsister and a stepmother whose parenting was more about control than love.  It didn't help that her husband, like the father in Short Girls, preferred hanging out with his friends and gambling to actually working, and was often absent.

Ms. Nguyen found comfort and security with her grandmother Noi, whose room seems to have been the quiet still center of the house.  There she kept the family's statue of Buddha, before whom she placed food offerings every day, later shared with her granddaughters (the dinner of the title).  Every day she cooked the familiar Vietnamese dishes, with a pot of hot rice ready when the girls came home from school.  Ms. Nguyen could retreat to her grandmother's room for peaceful hours of watching TV or working on puzzles.  Her uncles provided another refuge.  They lived their own lives in the basement, and there the children were free from the restrictions that ruled so much of their lives upstairs, as well as the tensions.

Sharing a bedroom with her two sisters, Ms. Nguyen watched the older girls grow closer as they moved into adolescence, leaving her on the outside.
I had only one thing to call my own: I read. Reading was my privacy  . . .  I carried books with me everywhere, even to the Dairy Cone. They were a safety, a just-in-case. Some people have imaginary friends; I had characters in books  . . .  I liked to pile my books around me in bed, moatlike, and sleep among the narratives. . . I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone.

Though I was the oldest in my family, and always had my own room, I could have written those words.  And Ms. Nguyen counted Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder among her favorite authors (noting how much Wilder writes about food).  But as she grew older, she became more aware of the lack of diversity in the books available to her.
I didn't have any nonwhite literature, anyway, to know what else I could become  . . .  I thought if I could know inside and out how my heroines lived and what they ate and what they loved - Harriet in New York, Laura in Dakota, Jo March in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Bennett in England - I could be them too.  I could read my way out of Grand Rapids.

Reading that set me thinking about the books I read, growing up in small towns in Michigan and Georgia and Washington State.  While I read and re-read Wilder and Alcott, I also found books with more diverse characters in the libraries, such as those in Mildred Taylor's books.  However, I realize now that many of the books featuring people of color were written by white authors.  My nieces and nephew have a greater richness of diversity, in both authors and characters, in the books available to them today.

Despite her complicated feelings about Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, Ms. Nguyen's new novel, Pioneer Girl, not only invokes Wilder in its title but also features a brooch that may have belonged to the author, a claim her main character (a daughter of Vietnamese immigrants) sets out to investigate.  No surprise that I have added that book to my reading list - in fact, I hope to pick it up at the library today.